Forging ahead into the new millennium

by Yuko Naito

Summer in Japan is notorious for being hot, humid and unpleasant. If you are a blacksmith, however, even the summer air is probably refreshing.

The temperature in Shigeyoshi Iwasaki’s two furnaces — one stoked with coal and the other with gas — can rise as high as 1,100 C. When the 66-year-old blacksmith forges red-hot iron with a hammer, sweat cascades down his face and arms like waterfalls. Even so, he says smiling, “Heat does not bother me much.”

The products Iwasaki creates at his tiny smithy on the outskirts of Sanjo City, Niigata, are of the highest quality. He produces a wide variety of edged tools — from agricultural tools to carpentry tools — but his knives and razors are especially famous. His razors, for instance, can split a hair in three.

In great demand from professional artisans and chefs, most of Iwasaki’s products are custom-made. If you order an original knife from him, however, you may have to wait months, or even years. A born perfectionist, Iwasaki has been known to return to the drawing board several times before creating a knife that meets his high standards.

“I feel embarrassed when I cannot fill an order in just one shot,” Iwasaki says. “What I make are not artworks. They have to be easy to cut with, easy to sharpen and keep their edge for a long time.”

The blade master not only takes into account the customer’s needs for the knife, but also the customer’s age as well as what kind of knife he/she has been using until then. For example, if the customer is very old or familiar with lightweight knives, heavy ones could pose a problem.

Sanjo City is well known as a blacksmiths’ town, where about 2,000 smiths are still working today. The history dates back to the Edo Period, 370-380 years ago. Since the area was often ravaged by the floods from the Shinano and Ikarashi rivers, many farmers fell into poverty. As a relief measure, the Edo government sent skilled blacksmiths to Sanjo, and had them teach the local people how to make nails to be used for construction in Edo and other areas. After the Meiji Era, they began to make other implements such as kitchen knives and kote (kimono irons).

Iwasaki didn’t come from a family of blacksmiths, however. His father was a college professor who had studied iron and other metals used in swords, and the Iwasaki family had lived in Yokosuka before they moved to his father’s hometown, Sanjo, in 1945.

At that time the products made there were cheap yet of poor quality. Iwasaki’s father, who had misgivings about the industry’s future, opened his own workshop with a subsidy of 600,000 yen from the government. His knowledge of metals was extensive, but he had no experience as a blacksmith, so he sent his son to apprentice with several master blacksmiths after young Shigeyoshi had graduated from high school.

“I was not particularly interested in smithery or knives, but I had no choice. I have never regretted my career decision, though,” Iwasaki says. “Someone told me that smithery is a Godgiven occupation, so you can never escape it. It is something like fate.”

Unlike conventional blacksmiths, Iwasaki uses scientific equipment, such as a device that tests hardness and a metallographic microscope. “For me, reason always comes first. With the help of those devices, the product’s quality will be consistent,” he says.

Iwasaki never hesitates to teach his skills and knowledge to whoever wants to learn. Several years ago he organized Sanjo Kaji Shudan, a volunteer group of 30 Sanjo smiths who help ordinary people try out smithery once a month. Some people became professional swordsmiths.

“Some artisans hand down their skills only to their children, but I don’t think this is good. We should give back everything we learned from our predecessors to society,” he says.

His definition of society isn’t limited to Japan. Since 1983 he has been regularly dispatched by the Japan International Cooperation Agency to developing countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Kenya to instruct local smiths in advanced skills.

“It is not well known, but Japanese blades are the best in the world,” he says proudly.